Moral Compass Distorted by Northern Lights?

I used to stare covetously at this cover in Borders

I used to stare covetously at this cover in Borders

THE DEFENDANT: The Golden Compass (a.k.a. Northern Lights), Philip Pullman

THE VERDICT: The His Dark Materials series as a whole was the second most frequently challenged book of 2008, with The Golden Compass itself coming in at #4 on the list in 2007, according to the ALA. In addition, Philip Pullman was the second most challenged author in 2008 and the fifth most challenged in 2007. He has also been called the most dangerous author in Britain. So, why the sudden interest in the books in the late 2000s when they were published in the mid-90s? Much like The Hunger Games, ire against the books reached fever pitch when the movie adaptation thrust it (back) into the public eye. It also became the target of Catholic groups going on the offensive against the movie, which, given the plot of the book, may have only proven its point.

However, as per usual, all of this has not stopped the books’ popularity. The trilogy is considered one of Britain’s “favourite 100 books of all time” and has even been known to win out against Harry Potter in sales. The award-winning first book was adapted into a movie by New Line Cinema (review forthcoming) and the series was even made into a stage play.

THE CHARGES: The ALA cites “religious viewpoint” as the issue at hand with The Golden Compass, but the series has reportedly been challenged for “political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence”. It is largely Christians or Christian groups trying to ban the books and the series was removed from a school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for its “anti-Christian message”. (In unrelated and irrelevant news, I have a library book from Oshkosh that I found in an end-of-the-semester free pile at college. Small world.) In the weirder end of the books’ problems, a Kentucky school took issue with the main character’s consumption of wine and poppy. The Catholic Herald called the series “the stuff of nightmares and worthy of the bonfire” (qtd in “A dark agenda?”). In one of the ballsier reactions in literary criticism, Pullman asked his publishers to print that quote in the next book (see above link).

THE REVIEW: His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy usually sold as a children’s or YA book, though it certainly does not lack in popularity among adults and its content has more than enough to leave the average adult reader thinking. The trilogy is set in a parallel, almost steampunk universe similar to ours but different in a variety of ways, the most distinct of which is that everyone is trailed by a daemon, a corporeal representation of their soul. Daemons can shape shift when their people are children but later lose this ability and take on an animal form that reflects the character of the human they’re attached to. Daemons are also the opposite gender of their person with the exception of a small minority whose daemons are the same gender (*cough, cough, obvious commentary*). His Dark Materials is a retelling of Paradise Lost the way The Hobbit is a retelling of Beowulf and the story delves deep into the heart of religion, corruption, and power. Both titles, The Golden Compass and His Dark Materials, come from the text of Paradise Lost.

This review will deal specifically with the first book. The Golden Compass introduces us to Lyra Belacqua (easily one of the best female child protagonists out there), a seeming orphan being raised at Jordan College, a part of Oxford. After an attempted assassination and the revelation of the existence of other universes and a mysterious substance called Dust that may be original sin, a mysterious woman (later revealed to be Lyra’s long lost mother) takes Lyra in. Though first enamored with her glamorous ways, Lyra realizes Mrs. Coulter is behind a Magisterium (the Church, a seemingly all-powerful theocratic central authority) plot to kidnap poor and minority children in order to cut away their daemon, believed to be how Dust settles on them, particularly during and after puberty.

Golden Compass

Pan and I are not so sure about this intercision thing…

This process, called intercision, is allegedly for the child’s own good but turns them into soulless, mindless, obedient zombies, hence why it is done on working class, minority, and unwanted children, not those deemed important enough to make decisions. After discovering this plot, Lyra escapes with an alethiometer (a sort of truth-reading device that resembles a pocket watch) and her demon, Pan, prompting her to go on a journey to both save her kidnapped friend Roger and get the alethiometer to her uncle Asriel (revealed to be her father) in the arctic. Along the way she is aided by the river-faring, nomadic Gyptians; witches; armored bears; and a Texan hot air balloonist.

I was urged to read this series back in elementary school by adults and children alike who raved about it, with Philip Pullman described to me as “the next J. K. Rowling”; “the male J. K. Rowling”; or, confusingly, “the British J. K. Rowling”. I began the second book without reading the first when the children’s book club I attended at Borders was reading it, but was quickly distracted by the seductive lure of summer weather. The series remained on my to-read list for many years until the movie’s imminent release forced my hand. Like Tiger Eyes, I regret not reading this book as a kid, not because it isn’t a great read still as an adult, but because Lyra’s journey is one that speaks to the transition from childhood to adulthood, its struggles magnified on a larger, more fantastic scale.

In many ways, this series has very similar themes as A Wrinkle in Time or the Harry Potter books (questioning authority, frustration with imperfect adults, finding one’s way in a morally ambiguous and complicated world, etc). Unlike these classics, however, His Dark Materials takes issue with organized religion rather than 1984-style secular governments or corruption and (social) injustice at large (though even later books in the Time Quartet/Time Quintet address using religion to manipulate and stir up fear, despite the series’ increasingly Christian bent). Like J. K. Rowling and Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Pullman does not talk down to his readers and throws Miltonian concepts and moral ambiguity at them without concern that it will go over their head. The world Lyra inhabits is also a fully fleshed out one with a great deal of world-building, the surface of which is barely scratched. And then we abandon it all for totally new universes at the end of the first book. The Golden Compass also offers memorable and resonant characters, all of which leap off the page.

This series, regardless of religious or political controversy, is bound to remain a classic of many genres (children’s, YA, fantasy, alternate/elseworlds-style historical speculative fiction, etc) for generations to come, whether because of the worlds it thrusts readers into or the questions it asks once they’re there. The Golden Compass also has one of the cooler concepts in fantasy, even if similar things exist in other books. I mean, who doesn’t want a soul weasel they can talk to and conspire with? In addition to the book, I also recommend the Random House podcast featuring Philip Pullman, Christopher Paolini, and Tamora Pierce. These three giants (or two and a half giants, depending on your opinion) of fantasy discuss gender, religion, and many other issues, offering interesting insights into their own work, as well as the genre as a whole.

THE DEFENSE: A friend of mine once said that His Dark Materials must have been very validating for the Christians who take issue with whatever popular book series is deemed anti-Christian or satanic that year. Finally, everything they’ve been accusing Harry Potter (and Buffy and Charmed and Goosebumps and Sabrina et al) of is finally true in this instance. Yes, the books do take a negative view of Christianity. Yes, they do have a subversive message. Yes, they do start off rather innocent and get darker as the series goes on. Yes, the characters are even out to kill God. Yes, yes, yes! Finally, after years of crying wolf, it’s House Stark up in this book series. In Pullman’s own words:

I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak. I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people – mainly from America’s Bible Belt – who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.

– Philip Pullman (qtd in “The shed where God died”)

As this is a review of only the first book, I’ll leave the issues in the later books (including any God-slaying) for later reviews by yours truly and fellow banned books blogger, Hannah. So, let’s tackle the issues with The Golden Compass. I will not say this book isn’t going to make some children (and probably many adults) uncomfortable. I personally know someone who was seriously unsettled by it due to her Christian background, not because the book slandered her faith, but because she found the concepts in it disturbing, given their particular resonance for Christians, especially Catholics. To which I say, good. They are supposed to be disturbing. That’s the point.

When old people are reused as food in Soylent Green it’s disturbing. When it turns out humanity destroyed itself in a nuclear holocaust in Planet of the Apes it’s disturbing. Schindler’s List is disturbing. 12 Years a Slave is disturbing. Les Misérables is disturbing. 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and The Hunger Games and The Giver and Carrie and The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata’s Diary and Persepolis and Watchmen are all disturbing. That’s the point. Making the reader uncomfortable or conflicted or confused is how authors make a point, whether about society or religion or teen angst or the likelihood of zombies eating all of our brains as society crumbles around us. Entire genres like horror, dystopian literature, post-apocalyptic literature, and many a Lifetime or Oscar-bait drama rely on making people uncomfortable.

Pullman clearly meant to make a point. So, if a child’s soul getting ripped away or Church-sanctioned murder or religion as a tool for oppression and a shield for absolute power makes someone uncomfortable, then mission accomplished. Though Christianity is the subject of the books’ religious commentary, Pullman says it extends to all organized religion when unchecked power inevitably leads to cruelty; he just happens to be coming from a Christian worldview, so those terms and archetypes are what he’s comfortable using. However, the books’ actual anti-Church message should not be confused with an anti-religious message. As Pullman says:

“That’s not to say I disparage the religious impulse. I think the impulse is a critical part of the wonder and awe that human beings feel. What I am against is organised religion of the sort which persecutes people who don’t believe. I’m against religious intolerance” (qtd in “The shed where God died“).

And it seems even some religious figures agree. The Archbishop of Canterbury has defended Pullman, even advocating their use in religious education. However, much like when the Vatican said Harry Potter was harmless, nobody seems to have noticed the positive words. In addition, the notion that the books could “address the ‘inadequacies’ of some religious education” came up in a theological and academic seminar held by Former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Even if Pullman did want to write an anti-Christian or anti-religious book, that’s his prerogative, as we don’t live in Lyra’s world and the Magisterium can’t assassinate us or make us disappear for maligning them. Again, Catholics who take issue with the book should strongly reconsider their approach, as the Church or other religious groups trying to silence the book through a concerted effort doesn’t exactly fight any of the stereotypes they’re taking issue with. It’s like when Umbridge banned The Quibbler. It kept no one from reading The Quibbler and only made the material in question seem that much more legitimate. Of course, those who take issue with The Golden Compass likely overlap with those who take issue with Harry Potter, so perhaps they missed this applicable lesson on how to handle bad press.

The only religious issue remaining is whether or not it’s appropriate to have The Golden Compass in a school library or in the classroom as a part of the curriculum, as schools do need to remain relatively neutral on the religious front. However, as stated above, the book has a lot of potential in both the classroom and even Sunday School. For starters, a class or unit looking at portrayals of religion or Christianity in literature might consider it alongside The Chronicles of Narnia (which some have considered it a response or equal and opposite reaction to) or A Wrinkle in Time. It could also just be read alongside other fantasy, YA, or children’s classics. Yes, it does deal with the faults of the Catholic Church, but that was half of my freshman World History class.

The Catholic Church is a large part of history, particularly in the western world, and some of that history involves the Church doing problematic things that we as a people generally agree were bad. This book could be a great way of addressing a period in history in which Church corruption was rampant (and a rather important one, as it led to the Protestant Reformation, a change in wartime treatment of prisoners, The Renaissance, the Enlightenment Era, and even the first depiction of the Judeo-Christian God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These events went on to influence everything from Shakespeare to science to art to literature to the formation of a democracy in the United States.

We learned about the Salem Witch Trails in my high school and I did a whole project on the European Witch Trials for a history final. We also learned about the Witch Trials in my Sunday School, but then it was a UU church so we got up to all sorts of wacky liberal hijinks, like briefly learning about most major world religions, believing that those around us didn’t have to believe the same things or even subscribe to the same religion, and having co-ed slumber parties in the woods. Historical events such as the Witch Trials or the Reformation or the Roman Empire’s approach to future parts of the Roman Empire require addressing such things as Church corruption, religion, persecution, and even the legacy of witchcraft and all the hysteria and complicated feelings and politics and confusion that surrounds it. All the more reason to open it up for discussion rather than sweeping potentially useful discussion starters under the rug.

Sure, it could get tense. As could any religion or mythology class or discussion about topics that are very personal for some. I’m half a Religion and Mythology major. I’ve seen plenty of people upset while discussing any number of religions or even culturally significant texts. That doesn’t mean we can never learn about, discuss, debate, or address any religion, creed, philosophy, or historical event. It just means that context, respect, and a teacher’s skills as a moderator are important.

Many schools already read and discuss The Pit and the Pendulum, whether in English class or alongside a history lesson about the Spanish Inquisition. That story has a few choice things to say about religion run amok. I don’t think any Christian should take offense to The Pit and the Pendulum, so why take offense to The Golden Compass? The Golden Compass would also be an excellent fit alongside the high school English class staple that inspired it, Paradise Lost. I don’t see why one should be any less suitable in the classroom than the other. Same goes for Dante’s Inferno or the rest of The Divine Comedy. And Dante was even excommunicated. Catholics have taken issue with both books. If one can exist in the proper context in a public high school, I see no reason why the other can’t. Besides, if we struck everything Catholics, or even just the Catholic Church, have taken issue with from high school, we wouldn’t have much of anything left, especially in history and science class, nevermind a comparative religion class.

Again, I think a church youth group, whether Christian or not, could benefit from discussing the themes in this book. Perhaps it will make some question their faith. Or perhaps it will make them think about when their faith has been used for purposes not in line with their beliefs and how to avoid it being used in such away in the future. I would hope there are very few Christians who think the Spanish Inquisition was a good idea or that the genocide of various indigenous peoples was all fine and dandy or that the Pope threatening to murder Michelangelo in the middle of a church if he didn’t paint it fast enough was a good move. So, it seems to me that examining these problematic elements in one’s religion (or another’s religion) and how to counter them (and their accompanying bad press) would be a good thing, rather than something to tear off the shelves or throw to the bonfire.

NorthernLightsAt the very least, it could provide an important and interesting discussion for a class, Sunday School, book club, home school group, or youth group. Again, it could be part of a unit or book group that looks at religion in literature, whether positive or negative. Or you could look at how religion has played into the fantasy genre, whether as an overt theme, as borrowed material for world-building (problematic or not), or as a subconscious influence that tells us about the culture and life of the author. The possibilities of using this book, whether in a secular public school, Christian setting, or other religious setting, are about as limitless as the worlds in the books themselves.

As for the issue of violence, yes the ending is violent and disturbing. Lyra’s dad/uncle, a trusted adult believed good, up and kills an innocent child who happens to be Lyra’s best friend for science and his own gain. It’s horrible. That’s why it’s awesome. For starters, I never saw it coming. Furthermore, like the twists and turns of loyalty in Game of Thrones, it gives the book a more complex morality than children’s books or books in general often do. Yes, the bad guys from the Magisterium tried to kill Uncle Asriel. But just because he’s not on their side doesn’t mean he’s on Lyra’s side either, or that he’s a good guy, or that there are even good guys and bad guys to begin with.

The lesson that trusted adults can do terrible things is an incredibly important one. Like it or not, we live in a world where bad things happen. If my memory serves, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be molested by age 18, probably by a relative, teacher, religious advisor, counselor, or other trusted adult. It’s also true that you’re more likely to be raped by someone you know than a stranger. Women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner or former intimate partner than by anyone else. In addition, custodial kidnapping have risen in the US in recent decades, though statistics of kidnapping perpetrated by strangers have remained the same.

It’s pretty standard to teach kids not to talk to strangers or to get an adult or scream in the event of a “Stranger Danger”. However, given the reality of the world and its crime statistics, it seems equally if not much more important to teach kids how to be safe and cautious with those they know or how to report or remove themselves from a situation in the event of one. I’m not saying to tell kids to distrust everyone they know and love, but the idea that adults can sometimes do bad things to them and others is a realistic and potentially life-saving message to get across. After all, not all adults in The Golden Compass are bad. Lyra trusts plenty of them and often with good reason, even if some, like Mrs. Coulter, turn out not to be trustworthy.

And finally we bring ourselves to Lyra’s consumption of wine and poppy. Really? Children in the US and abroad drink wine ceremonially or with dinner or on certain special occasions all the time. Just a few centuries ago no one would bat an eye at a child downing grog with the best of them. I don’t even remember the poppy instance, so I can’t say if it was an opiate or simply a poppy seed muffin, but either way it’s not like reading The Golden Compass is going to make kids become opium or muffin addicts.

Besides, if we culled every book with offhanded references to drug use or dismissed every character who ever partook of alcohol, drugs, or any kind of mind-altering substance, most of English literature would be gone, as would nearly every epic, religious text, and saga. Do you know how many people get drunk in the Bible? Odysseus and his men do all sorts of drugs given to them by strange women on unknown islands. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have pipeweed and brandy and pints of beer, yet are considered appropriate fare for children, especially The Hobbit. Even Santa has a pipe and rosy cheeks.

And, despite reading both The Hobbit and The Golden Compass, I have yet to find myself facedown in an opium den after binge-drinking with weed-smoking country folk and killing God. Or Ilúvatar. Whatever the case may be.



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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

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